Movies

Ford v Ferrari Is Thrilling, Excellent, and Not a Superhero Movie

Martin Scorsese says superhero movies are crowding out cinema. But plenty of great non-comic-book films still exist.

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Watching James Mangold's vastly entertaining new race-car drama, Ford v FerrariI couldn't help but think of Martin Scorsese. 

Scorsese is one of my favorite filmmakers: It's possible I've watched his 1976 film Taxi Driver more often than any other movie, and I count Goodfellas as one of a handful of genuinely flawless films. Currently, he is promoting a new movie, The Irishman, which is playing in select theaters and garnering rave reviews. But he's probably made more news for his recent comments about the wildly popular franchise of comic-book movies made by Marvel, which is owned by Disney. Those movies, he said, are "not cinema." 

Cinema, Scorsese wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, was "about revelation—aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves." 

Movies, in this view, exist to tell stories that explore and reveal human nature. They are about people—their struggles, their flaws, and their essential qualities. And they take tonal and stylistic risks that franchise blockbusters typically avoid. 

Scorsese's worry was that in the age of Marvel and Disney, movies had become something else, something less human, less interesting, and more rote. Moviegoers, he warned, have few alternatives at the multiplex, and filmmakers struggle to get risky, difficult movies made. Superhero franchises are crowding out everything else. 

From time to time, I have complained about the ubiquity and generic competence of Marvel superhero movies, and I still wish the studio would do more to vary its aesthetic universe. (That's especially true of its action sequences, which too often feel weightless and perfunctory, like the mass-produced exercises in generic spectacle they are.) And there are certainly ways in which it has grown more difficult to make a medium-budget movie at a major studio. 

Yet it's hardly the case that there are no alternatives, no choices for viewers who want to see something different. Which brings me back to Ford v Ferrari. The film stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale as a car designer and driver working for Ford to build a racecar that could beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966, and it is a model of classic Hollywood delights—the sort of film that Scorsese worries is being lost to superhero movie sameness. 

Built around a handful of sublimely thrilling race sequences and a pair of endearing, magnetic, incredibly watchable movie-star performances, it is part buddy movie, part action film, part exploration of a particular and deeply male form of determination and drive. 

Mangold, whose previous films include the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the Sylvester Stallone crime drama Copland, has always been interested in a certain sort of taciturn middle-aged man and his ambitions, the way that male anxiety and mid-life regret can fuel vision, achievement, conflict, and disappointment. Tellingly, the inciting incident occurs when the head of Ferrari compares Henry Ford II to his father; Damon's character, Carroll Shelby, is a former driver turned engineer who can no longer race due to health complications. In Mangold's world, men are always looking anxiously backwards, struggling to live up to their own impossible expectations for themselves. 

Ford v. Ferrari isn't a Martin Scorsese movie; it's more upbeat, more eager to please, more willing to give in to the demands of Hollywood conventionality. Yet it is the kind of movie that Scorsese fears viewers can no longer see, and the kind of movie he wants to see made—visually striking, emotionally complex, focused on the real world and the ways that real people behave within it. 

Nor is it the first 2019 film to succeed along these lines: In many ways Ford v. Ferrari reminded me of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, another ruminative, distinctive, period film constructed around the friendship of two middle-aged men played by movie stars with shine to spare. Both are movies about time and permanence, and both manage to extract a surprising amount of cinematic enjoyment out of long, luxurious shots of their leading men driving gorgeous old cars, backlit by the fading light of California sunsets. 

These two films are far better than most of their competition, but they are not exceptions that prove a rule. The end-of-year release calendar is packed with ambitious non-superhero films aimed at adults: Knives Out, The Report, Dark Waters, 1917, Uncut Gems, Richard Jewell, just to name a few. It's true, of course, that there's also a new Star Wars film and a sequel to Frozen on the way, and it is a foregone conclusion that both will do outsized business at the box office. But alternatives exist; indeed, they account for the vast majority of theatrical releases. Of the 758 films released theatrically last year, just 10 were Disney films. Just three were made by Marvel. 

It is worth noting, too, that Mangold's two previous films—The Wolverine and Logan—were about a superhero drawn from the world of Marvel comics. Like many of Mangold's other films, they were both elegiac and stylish, somber depictions of a man dealing with age and rage. Although they were produced by Fox and not set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they were demonstrations of the ways that superhero movies, at their best, can do all the things that Scorsese wants cinema to do. 

In many ways, I am sympathetic to Scorsese's concerns about the sameness of studio filmmaking, about the way risk-aversion drives choices about which stories get told and how, and about how the rise of streaming services affect big-screen theatrical viewing. 

Yet as a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable of movie studio heads makes clear, it's only because of a spend-happy streaming service that Scorsese's new film—a three and a half hour movie starring a trio of actors in their 70s that cost nearly $200 million to make—was made at all. Without Netflix, which is often positioned as one of the biggest threats to theatrical viewing, it's quite possible the movie would never have gotten a greenlight. The new, weird era of streaming and superhero movies isn't perfect, and certainly isn't beyond criticism or complaint. But it isn't destroying the cinema that Scorsese loves; it is, thank goodness, ensuring that it continues to exist. 

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  1. Suderman your Adderall dose is too low.

  2. Wait. It’s a good movie, but Matt Damon is in it? That’s contradictory.

    1. The Martian was great, but they had the sense to strand him on his own planet.

  3. Ok, I think this finishes off the need to talk any more about Scorsese and his speech, which was a blatant attempt to take a shot at Disney, who is opening a streaming service that competes with his employer, Netflix.

    While I dig the movie review, the business side of the streaming industry is the most interesting thing in this article to me. 5 Years ago, people were saying that Netflix had blown up the publisher/distributor monopoly on content. But now we are entering this weird phase where we have a thousand channels of content and have to pay for each one. One of the keys here is that Streaming Platforms used to be a competitive advantage, but they are now a commodity. Behind the scenes, a couple of video CDNs are powering all these streaming services, which has allowed all these producers get into the distribution game. And at the TV, it is trivial to build a user client that can plug in any of these players for a custom lineup for the customer.

    I think the interesting thing here will be to see how Disney does. They are riding high because they made some very lucrative films over the past 20 years. However, they have royally fucked up the Star Wars universe (or at least failed to un-fuck it from eps 1-3). Their next phase of Marvel MCU seems…also risky? What happens if they cannot create NEW content to drive sales?

    1. What happens if they cannot create NEW content to drive sales?

      You say this like Disney hasn’t been in the business of snatching content out of the public domain and remaking it under their brand for over half a century.

    2. Yeah, the MCU pretty much died along with all the departed Avengers. (no spoilers)

  4. My suspicion about these superhero movies is that without over the top CGI, they would all be regarded as being on the same level as low budget 50s sci-fi.

    1. Someone a few years ago described them as the movies Ed Wood would have made had he had CGI and a big budget. I think that sums it up pretty well.

  5. Re: Scorsese’s diatribe.

    Films are what you make to indulge your artistic vision and show to a few other art nerds.

    Movies are what you make to attract lots of people willing to pay.

    Sometimes, it can be both.

  6. I am going to make a point of seeing this movie. I bitch about Hollywood all of the time. Here they finally make a movie that isn’t political left or right, is actually about men doing interesting things instead of the usual “girls can” BS and tells a great story. I am happy to give them my money for this and hopefully this movie will make a fortune and encourage them to do more like it.

    1. Also, IMO, the race itself is a quintessential great (American) underdog moment, up there with Rudy, Rocky, or The Miracle On Ice.

      1. Sorry mad.casual but this was not an underdog moment. Mr.Ford was pissed at Mr. Ferrari for not him not selling his little Italian company to huge Ford. So, Ford said, spend whatever it takes to show up Ferrari. They dumped a ton of money but eventually got their 1-2-3 finish at LeMans.

    2. I’m still waiting for “Hell on the Border” to hit theaters.

  7. You had me at “not a superhero movie.”

  8. i’m down but i’m soooo fucking tired of Christian Bale’s love for himself

  9. Poor casting to use Damon as Carroll Shelby; an historical figure that warrants a full feature film simply on his life alone. After rebuffed by Chevrolet for engines for his Cobra (they feared it would torpedo the Corvette), he solicited Ford. At a meeting with top execs in Dearborn Lee Iacocca took several out of the boardroom and told them, “for Chrissakes give him the motors before he eats the drapes”.

    1. Yeah Damon as Shelby is disappointing to say the least. But not quite so obnoxious as Keanu Reeves playing Siddhartha Gautama.

  10. I haven’t seen this yet, but I know that Rush was better.

  11. Yeah, how dare Scorsese have an opinion that wasn’t voted on by Twitter users?

    This comment not approved by Silicon Valley brain slugs.

  12. Martin Scorsese says superhero movies are crowding out cinema. But plenty of great non-comic-book films still exist.

    Yeah! See? Count them, there’s….one….um..

  13. Scorsese didn’t say there were no alternatives to franchise comics, he just said they were harder to find. So much for your strawman.

    This comment not approved by Silicon Valley brain slugs.

  14. Download this movie from – https://www.pirateproxy.space . I was happy to watch this movie! One of the best films of this year!

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